Suicidality appears to have increased sharply in Israel during the initial nationwide lockdown implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gil Zalsman, MD, MHA, reported at the virtual congress of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology.
He presented highlights from a soon-to-be-published analysis of the content of online chat sessions fielded by a national crisis hotline () during the first 6 months of 2020, compared with January through June 2019, in the pre-COVID-19 era.
It’s far too early to say whether actual deaths tied to suicide rose significantly during the spring lockdown, since medical examiners often take a long time before ruling suicide as cause of death. But this much is clear: The number of suicide-related chat sessions recorded at the volunteer-staffed national hotline during April 2020 was two-and-a-half times greater than in April 2019, and threefold greater in May 2020 than a year earlier, according to Dr. Zalsman, professor of psychiatry at Tel Aviv University and director of the Geha Mental Health Center in Petach Tikva, Israel, where he also directs an adolescent day unit.
The proportion of chats handled at the crisis hotline, many of them concerned with the standard topics – relationships, stress, fears, anxiety, and other non–suicide-related issues – was 48% greater in the first half of 2020, compared with a year earlier. Indeed, the pandemic is putting an enormous strain on crisis hotlines the world over.
“Everybody who is working hotlines knows that they’re falling apart. There are too many calls, too many chats. They need to multiply their volunteers,” Dr. Zalsman said.
The number of suicide-related online chats jumped the week of March 12, when schools closed across Israel and a partial lockdown began. The peak in suicide-related chats occurred beginning the week of April 17, when the forced total lockdown was declared.
“Everything was closed. You couldn’t go out or the police would arrest you,” Dr. Zalsman recalled.
The suicide-related chat count started to drop off in mid-May, when schools reopened, and continued to decline through the end of June.
Only a small percentage of suicide-related chats were deemed by crisis hotline volunteers and their supervisors to be truly life-threatening situations necessitating a call to the police. But the number of such exchanges was significantly greater in April and May 2020 than in January and February, or in April and May 2019.
Use of the crisis hotline is ordinarily skewed toward tech-savvy young people, or as Dr. Zalsman called them, “kids who live inside their computers.” He note that the psychological impact of the pandemic on children and adolescents is largely unexplored research territory to date.
Older people also seek help
A finding that he and his coinvestigators didn’t anticipate was the significantly increased use of the service by individuals aged 65 and older during the pandemic. This underscores the increased vulnerability of older people, which stems in part from their heightened risk for severe infection and consequent need for prolonged physical isolation, he said.
The conventional thinking among suicidologists is that during times of crisis – wars, natural disasters – suicidality plunges, then rises quickly afterward.
“People withhold themselves. When there’s a big danger from outside they ignore the danger from inside. And once the danger from outside is gone, they’re left with emptiness, unemployment, economic crisis, and they start” taking their own lives, Dr. Zalsman explained. He expects suicidality to increase after the pandemic, or as the Israeli crisis hotline data suggest, perhaps even during it, for multiple reasons. Patients with preexisting psychiatric disorders are often going untreated. The prolonged physical isolation causes emotional difficulties for some people, especially when accompanied by social isolation and loneliness. There is grief over the loss of friends and relatives because of COVID-19. And there is an expectation of looming economic hardship, with mounting unemployment and bankruptcies.
Dr. Zalsman reported having no financial conflicts regarding his study, conducted free of commercial support.
SOURCE: Zalsman G. ECNP 2020, .